Public-private partnerships provide internet connection for students

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On the evening of March 15, fewer than 24 hours before the start of a new academic week, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced that schools would close at least through the end of the week to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Hundreds of school districts and thousands of educators around the state raced against the clock to develop distance learning plans that would move instruction out of classrooms and onto online platforms.

child viewing a lesson on a laptop computer

“Right after the press conference where the school closures were announced, the governor jumped on a call on a Sunday night with the state superintendent, school district leaders and union leaders to talk about how we were going to continue learning for all students,” says Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, which is the state’s largest union of public employees and public school educators. “North Dakota is a very rural state, but we’re a very connected state.”

Archuleta says that, per capita, North Dakota is the most connected state in the union—in terms of internet connection. Still, not all students and families had internet access when the schools closed. On March 19, the governor announced schools would remain closed until further notice.

“Kirsten Baeslar— our state superintendent—put together a partnership with the Broadband Association of North Dakota to tackle the issue of internet access to make sure every student had access to ongoing education while schools are closed,” Archuleta says. Baeslar is a North Dakota United member. The broadband association “took rosters of kids from all of the schools and compared them to customer rosters of internet providers and found that only 169 students lived in homes without internet access.”

Broadband providers either wired these homes for internet services or provided hot spots, at no cost, for four months, Archuleta says.

“When you consider how quickly all of these pieces were put together to make sure learning could continue, it really reflects good leadership, especially when the input from employees and their unions is valued,” Archuleta says. “It also shows the benefit of public-private partnerships to solve problems and meet challenges.”

In Toledo, Ohio, the school district, local union and the primary cable service provider joined together to provide access to the internet and to devices so that students could participate fully in online learning.

“When schools closed, we had what seemed like a nanosecond to make the move from classroom instruction to distance learning,” says Kevin Dalton, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. “I reached out to one of the local internet providers, and they agreed to ensure that any student who needed access could get it at no cost.”

The local school district, which provided laptops to students, also has made 40 hot spots available, using school buses that drive out to various neighborhoods and park for hours each day to allow students to connect to the internet, Dalton says.

“Remote learning and electronic instruction will never be able to replace the quality and effectiveness of what educators do in brick-and-mortar buildings,” Dalton says. “But while schools are closed, it’s absolutely vital for students to be able to stay connected through the various online platforms, both for their academic development and for the social interaction.”

Since March 16, when Ohio schools closed, Dalton says the TFT and its members have been working almost around the clock to support students and their families.

“We are encouraging teachers to stay connected with students; we’re using Share My Lesson to help parents help their kids with lessons; and we’re working with the local United Way to run a hotline that parents who need assistance can call,” he says. “We also worked with the district to create a hotline for students to reach teachers for homework and academic support.”

As governors around the country make the decision about closing schools for the remainder of the school year, some districts are still struggling to bridge the “homework gap” for students who don’t have internet access at home.

The AFT joined with more than 50 education groups and national associations to call for $2 billion in emergency funding to provide internet access so students can participate in online remote learning while schools are closed. In a letter to leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives, the group wrote, “An estimated 9 to 12 million students and some of their teachers currently lack home internet access and are unable to participate in their classes that have been moved online.”

In some states, internet access and the utilization of technology vary from one school district to another, and Rhode Island is no exception, says Colleen Callahan, director of professional issues for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. The state federation is providing online professional development and a virtual help desk to assist educators as they move instruction online.

“Because of the professional development network that we have established around the state, our state federation was able to support teachers in this transition to online learning,” Callahan says. The union provides virtual professional development on distance learning three nights each week

Online learning has been made possible for “100 percent of students around the state,” Callahan says, through a public-private partnership between the governor and four of the state’s major cellphone service providers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon).

“At the very beginning of the directive to go into distance learning, we identified access problems—both in terms of devices and internet connection,” Callahan says. With the help of union member volunteers, the districts engaged in a huge effort to get devices to families and students.

“A lot of our educators and support personnel handed out Chromebooks at meal distribution sites, but there were districts around the state that didn’t have enough devices for all of their students,” she says. Fidelity Investments donated 120 tablets to Central Falls, Crossroads and other districts. Cox donated $25,000 to Central Falls to purchase Chromebooks. And the Rhode Island Foundation set up a tech support fund—putting $100,000 into the fund to start and asking for matches. So far, the fund has received more than $10,000 from individuals and $150,000 from corporations.

The agreement between the governor and the four major cellphone service providers provides unlimited data for all current customers in Rhode Island, as well as the ability for families to use their phones as hot spots for distance learning without incurring extra charges.

Additionally, districts across the state have been working with major internet providers, especially Cox, to ensure all households have access to in-home internet. Cox has made it easier for individual families to apply for its low-cost Connect2Compete program—which is free through July 15. The company also created a way to allow districts to enroll families in the program. Many districts are now able to directly pay for in-home internet for families in need. For families that can’t get Cox or use their phones, districts have purchased hot spots through Verizon or leveraged a partnership through Mobile Beacon/Digital Wish to get donated hot spots.

“Our public-private partnerships have made it possible to close the access gap so that all students can participate in remote learning,” Callahan says. The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, an AFT state affiliate, has developed Distance Learning Resources to provide support to educators, students and families.

As part of Rhode Island’s distance learning initiative, the governor issued a reading challenge to encourage youngsters to continue reading during the COVID-19 school closure. RIFTHP, in partnership with the AFT and First Book, is providing 7,000 books that are multilingual and grade- and age-appropriate, which will be distributed at meal grab-and-go sites.

“We are proud to be part of this ongoing project to get books to our students to increase literacy and foster a love of reading,” says RIFTHP President Frank Flynn.

The AFT has a number of online resources on distance learning for educators, parents and students. There also is distance learning help for students with special needs and a distance learning tip sheet.

[Angela Callahan/photo by iStock.com/pinstock]